By Tom Yancey
The Greene County Commission took no action Monday regarding threatened decertification of the Greene County Detention Center, or jail.
No proposal relating to a long-range solution to the problem of jail overcrowding was on the commission agenda for the meeting.
The county has been given until Dec. 3 to present a plan for dealing with overcrowding and related issues, or face decertification by the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI).
Greene County Mayor Alan Broyles and Sheriff Steve Burns are to appear before the TCI in Nashville on that day to report on where the county stands on the overcrowding problem.
The county was asked by the TCI to have a jail improvement plan ready to present by the Dec. 3 meeting, but no consensus has been reached in the commission about what to do to relieve inmate crowding.
The non-action by the commission Monday night effectively brought to a temporary halt a months-long process of seeking a long-term solution to the jail overcrowding problem that would involve new construction, either at a new site or at the current downtown site.
Three County Commission committees have been working with Sheriff Steve Burns and architect Dave Wright since early 2008 to develop various options that would resolve the jail overcrowding problem for the foreseeable future.
Sheriff Burns has strongly favored finding such a long-term solution, and has said he believes all or almost all of the cost involved could be offset by revenue the county would receive from housing federal and state prisoners.
Last spring the TCI, which inspects the state's county jails for certification purposes, approved a Greene County plan for converting an existing exercise area in the current Detention Center to a "pod" with cells to house 30-some female inmates.
At the time that plans for that work were approved, jail inspector Melody Gregory also told county officials that a long-term plan to address inmate overcrowding needed to be in place by the end of this year.
Greene County officials never moved ahead on plans to convert the pod, because of the long-term requirement.
Sheriff Burns told the commission committees studying needs for the Detention Center that the estimated $300,000 to $400,000 to convert the pod would be "throwing good money after bad" if the county's long-range plan turned out to call for a new detention center on a new site.
Burns, Wright Commended
At the commission meeting Monday night, County Mayor Alan Broyles commended Sheriff Burns and architect Wright for their efforts over the preceding year to present various options for making long-term improvements to the current jail facility or to build a new detention center and justice center at a different location.
"I don't think it's all been in vain," the mayor said.
Two lengthy County Commission workshops held on Nov. 3 and Nov. 10 failed to reach any consensus on a long-term solution involving major construction either at a new site or at the current detention center.
A straw vote among the commisisoners on Nov. 10 found minimal support for any of the proposed options.
Many commissioners indicated that they were willing to take no action at this time other than reducing the number of prisoners in the jail to reduce the crowding problem.
Steps Taken So Far
"It's important, as important can be, to keep the jail certified, to reduce the liability of the county," Mayor Broyles said.
Prior to the actual commission meeting, Sheriff Burns told the Republican commissioners' caucus meeting that he believes the county's "only hope" of temporarily maintaining certification in the absence of a long-range plan is to show good faith by reducing the current jail population by reducing the number of federal inmates.
Therefore, he said that he has asked the U.S. Marshal's Service to reduce the number of federal inmates that agency houses in the Greene County Detention Center while the inmates are awaiting trial or sentencing in U.S. District Court in Greeneville.
Burns said he also is attempting to reduce the number of state-custody prisoners, but he added that he has little control over that number.
The sheriff also told the GOP caucus that he has contacted 33 other counties and asked them to take state-custody prisoners if they have room, but only two counties were able to help. One county took 10 prisoners, he said, and one county took three.
He said all counties face similar inmate overcrowding problems.
The Greene County Detention Center, or jail, has a rated capacity of 159 beds, but for several years has regularly housed many more. It is a maximum/medium security facility, located downtown behind the Greene County Courthouse.
The county government also operates a workhouse, which is a minimum-security facility on Summer Street. The workhouse is currently certified, has no pending issues, and has open beds.
To deal with Detention Center crowding, Sheriff Burns has moved most of the female inmates out of the Detention Center and into the workhouse, reducing its capacity for male inmates by 25 percent, as long as it has more female inmates.
Impact On Revenue
Reducing the number of federal inmates will also reduce the county's revenue, Burns noted, since the county is paid $48 per inmate, per day, to house and feed them: an amount which far exceeds the county's extra cost to maintain them.
The current fiscal year budget assumes that the county will house an average of 54.25 federal inmates year-round. The current fiscal year budget gets about $2 million from housing state and federal inmates. The fiscal year began July 1.
Burns said that the county will have to continue to operate the Detention Center at the reduced population levels, since TCI inspectors can visit it again at any time, starting Jan. 1.
"They will come back in six months," or less, "and we've got to be down (in numbers) then," Burns said. He said TCI officials "know jails" and are aware of the numbers that have been housed here in recent years.
The sheriff said some of the federal prisoners housed here are Greene County residents indicted in Greeneville on federal charges, and awaiting trial. Those prisoners must continue to be housed here, he said.
'Meetings Need To Resume'
Mayor Broyles said at the commission meeting that, if the TCI decertifies the detention center, "Doing nothing is not an option," since that would increase the county's exposure to liability for inmate medical costs, and would increase the county's exposure should an inmate file a lawsuit alleging overcrowding.
Broyles said that it will most likely be January before the three County Commission committees that have been working on inmate overcrowding issues will meet again, but that will need to happen then.
"The appropriate committees will get together to try and come up with something, if the TCI certifies," Broyles said.
The committees are: Law Enforcement, Budget and Courthouse/Workhouse, the last of which deals directly with the jail.
Broyles said he and Burns "will have something to tell you after we get back from Nashville," and at that point, "it will be up to the commission to make a decision."
Although there was no discussion of the jail certification problem in the County Commission meeting itself, in the Republican caucus session several commissioners suggested that the county try to get relief from the TCI's requirements through either a lawsuit or action by the state legislature.
County Attorney Roger Woolsey said he does not believe that the county would have much success pursuing a lawsuit, since the state could point out that Greene County's government has voluntarily chosen to house large numbers of state and federal inmates for revenue purposes.
Sheriff Burns said he believes the county should ask state Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, and state Reps. David Hawk, R-5th, of Greeneville, and Eddie Yokley, D-11th, of Greene County, to become involved, because of current national and state economic problems.
Burns said the legislature could provide relief to Greene County and to two-thirds of the rest of the counties in the state facing inmate crowding issues by reducing for 12 months the amount of open space that is currently required in jails - as long as the jails are clean, and provide adequate food, adequate bedding, water and medical treatment.
He said jails are now required to make sure that each prisoner has 35 square feet of open space in addition to the square footage required in his or her bed area.
Burns said he believes the open-space requirement can be reduced and still leave adequate open areas in each cell block or pod. Reducing the square footage would help counties with older jails that predate the current open-space requirements.
He said asking TCI "to back off" on its requirements for 12 months would give counties all over the state, including Greene County, the time needed to make careful, long-term plans.
Contacts With Other Counties
Mayor Broyles said in the caucus that he plans to write a letter to Tennessee's other 94 county mayors to petition the legislature, "in view of these hard times."
Burns suggested that the state Association of County Mayors (ACM), the Tennessee County Commissioners Association (TCCA), and the Tennessee County Services Association also be approached.
According to its website, the Tennessee County Services Association is a "nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group reprsenting the state's 95 counties."
The website explains that the County Services Association is comprised of three affiliates: the ACM, the TCCA, and the Tennessee County Highway Officials Association.